Every four years, when the summer Olympic Games roll around, I become engrossed in sports that I have not heard anything about since the last games. Sports like double trap shooting, judo, fencing, canoeing/kayaking, and badminton don’t usually make headlines outside of a country winning the gold medal. The players may never be heard from again, but their gold medals are forever a source of pride for their countries.

We are currently in the midst of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are 207 nations (between 8,255 and 10,500 athletes) participating in 306 events in 28 sports in 37 venues. We are witnessing some of the most historical athletic endeavors of all time. Michael Phelps now has the most Olympic gold medals of any individual in the history of the games — 23 gold, 3 silver, and 2 bronze. Usain Bolt has proven that he is the fastest man alive by winning his third straight Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter dash. And, even though it is her first Olympics, Simone Biles is already being acclaimed as the greatest female gymnast of all time.

There are several traits that all of these Olympic athletes have in common, among which are focus, repetition, passion, and perseverance. This is a great lesson for folks like you and me: to “run,” as the writer to the Hebrews expressed, “with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). Or to persevere, as James expressed: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life” (James 1:12). Paul exclaimed in his farewell address, “If only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me” (Acts 20:24). And again, he admonished Timothy, “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5).

When God called you, He did so with the full expectation that you would be a winner, not a whiner — that you would finish the race with joy, not drop out along the way. Paul looked back on his life and ministry saying, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). He was eligible for the prize … the crown.

So are you, my colleague, but you must fight the good fight — finish the race — and no matter what, keep the faith! You may never receive a gold medal, but if you remain faithful, the Righteous Judge will award you something much better: His approval, His recognition, His blessing. So be prepared: The finish line lies before you! Go for it! And do it with enthusiasm.

The apostle Paul admonished the church at Corinth to also aim for perfection (2 Corinthians 13:11). In other words, do your best, be your best, hope for the best. The pursuit of excellence is a repeated story in the sports world. Reporters often write about:

1. Preparation
2. Recruitment
3. Performance
4. Coaching
5. Teamwork
6. Players at skilled positions
7. Study of the playbook
8. Second effort
9. Testings and challenges
10. Minimizing the turnovers
11. Will to win

And the list goes on.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, my colleague? The thing we have going for us is that, in our big games, there are no losers. You are a player/coach on the winning team in a struggle for the hearts and souls of all mankind. We may not succeed on every play, but one day when the final whistle blows, we’ll know “we are more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

At the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I once visited an exhibit titled “Praxis — Athletes” by an artist named Kyriacos Lazarides. The paintings were all abstracts of famous Olympic athletes without names attached. There were gymnasts, runners, lifters, skiers, cyclists — you name it. In the mix of the paintings was a framed quote that caught my eye: “Praxis is not only to try and to give up, but praxis is also to penetrate, to fight, to win and to lose, to kneel down, to get up, to stimulate and to accept struggle and fight until the last breath.” It really reflects the Olympic spirit — it also calls to mind the commitment you must make to the challenge you face in life and ministry. That “never give up” spirit personifies who you are in Christ.

It reminds me of the challenge and promise our God issued to Joshua as he took the mantle of leadership from Moses: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

Violence 250x167The current year is just a little more than halfway over. Apart from the frightening carnival that this year’s presidential election has become, what would you say is the biggest category of news story that is being reported and debated throughout the country and the world? Watching the nightly news and checking the Internet, my guess would be the stories on increasing, unnecessary, and unconscionable violence around the planet.

For example, just recently there was Thursday’s attack in Nice, France, when a large truck driving through Bastille Day crowds killed 84 people, many of them children. Also on Thursday, July 14, Baltimore police officers, responding to the sound of gunshots near an apartment building, fatally shot a man who fired at them with an AR-15-style rifle, authorities said. Also from yesterday, a Philadelphia father has been charged with waving a gun around a bedroom with seven children present until it went off, killing his 4-year-old daughter. An Indianapolis man was accused of firing shots into a police officer’s home on Tuesday, July 12, as his wife and child slept. And last week, on July 7, the Dallas Police Department became the first in the nation to use a robot to deliver and detonateViolence gun 250x156 a bomb to blow up suspect Micah Johnson, ending a night of terror in which he shot 14 officers, killing five of them, and also wounded two civilians. On July 6, in St. Paul, a black Minnesota man was allegedly shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. In Phoenix, a man was shot dead on June 10 as he sat in his car in front of his girlfriend’s house by a suspect who was identified later that week as the city’s first serial killer in a decade. Today like never before, violent extremists of all kinds are not just killing others in cold blood, but they are deliberately targeting young people with poisonous propaganda — especially in cyberspace, where they are flooding social media with slick recruiting videos and persuasive calls to action.

Sin separates 250x125Folks, we have a problem. And it’s not a new one. At the heart of each of the violent acts being carried out around our world is the same condition — sin! And what is the only remedy? Belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came to earth as a man, lived a sinless life, was crucified and thereby paid the debt each of us owed for our sins, then rose again to conquer death forever and provide us with everlasting life. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us.

Now, how does this work today? A significant part of the plan is the local pastor — you! “Why do we need pastors?” some will ask. Well, let me tell you why we need you now — at your best — more than ever.

Role Of The Pastor 250x167First: We need stability. The nation — the world — is spinning out of control. We need you steadfast and sure to point us to God. We need your leadership.

Second: There are so many questions. Why war? Why killings of the innocent in schools? Why so much corruption in our government? Why the lack of moral outrage? Why is the church so hesitant to get involved? Where do you find answers? We need to know what you think. We need your wisdom.

Third: Christianity is under attack. Everywhere I turn, I see the liberal media taking shots at Christ and those who follow Him. We need you to encourage us, to guide us to keep up the good fight.

Fourth: We see truth undermined at every turn. In Bible days, it was said that people did what was right in their own eyes. Not so different than today, huh? It is not so much what man says — we need to know what God is saying. We need you to tell us, “Thus says the Lord.”

Fifth: We need consistency. We need to be able to look at you and know that you practice what you preach. We need to see a renewal of faith in you and what you represent. We need to be able to trust your morals, your commitment, and your determination. We want to do that with confidence. We need you now more than ever … at your best!

Christian family 250x188In a little-quoted scripture, the writer of Hebrews proclaims, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).

The next truth to keep in mind is that you are not expected to do it alone. You cannot change the nature of man by yourself. You are to lead your church into the battle. The Church of Christ is the Body of our Lord. Its various members have assigned tasks and abilities that will allow It to do the will of Jesus in this perverted world. Prepare it to do so.

Your job? To pray without ceasing for your people. How do you pray for your church? Consider the following:

Pray …

Prayer - a passion for God 250x225► For the hearts of your people to blaze with love and loyalty to Christ our King and Lord of all.

► For church members to recognize their sin and openly confess the many ways they have grieved God. To seek forgiveness and renewal.

► That God would draw near to His people, revealing His presence with times of refreshing like water on a parched desert.

► For reconciliation, the removal of divisions and hostilities — for the church to work in unity.

► For a renewed passion for those who represent the least, the lost, and the lonely (such as those who resort to violence).

► That the church might be the initiating agent to eradicate loneliness and sin around the world through Jesus Christ.

A Big God 250x200When you pray, how do you pray for your church family? How do they pray for themselves? The early church “joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14). I believe the local church — your church — is the catalyst for real transformation in our nation. But it can happen only as we are willing to pray urgently, humbly, and often.

Pray, brother, pray! Pray, sister, pray!

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Love-cross 250x150And, as you pray for them, they will respond in love — for you, for one another, for those they know personally, and for those they do not know personally, for the world. Love begets love. When you love your people genuinely, they will love you back and then some.

Over the years, that fact has been proven to me again and again. From many whose names I could not remember, and faces I could not identify, have come words of thanks and blessings for my loving them and standing in the gap for their families and marriages. As pastors, we make a difference more often than we could ever imagine.

There is a dangerous trend I see in the church — where the pastor wants to be served and stands aloof from the people of his pasture. I promise you that, years from now — no, weeks from now — your people will scarcely remember the sermons you preached. But I promise, they will never forget the love you showed to them and the joy you expressed at being called their pastor. They will Forgiveness from sin 250x188remember how you led them in the ways of Christ Jesus. They will see the power of the Lord as the resolution to the sin that is so violently prevalent today. They will
then make a difference.

“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart” (Philippians 1:7).

Fathers-Day3-250x166Father’s Day shines bright this month. You may see more fathers and husbands in attendance than usual. You may see more sons and daughters, too. Take hold of this opportunity. Make a fuss over them.

For the major part of my pastoral life, I invested huge amounts of time in men. Early on, I realized it was a ministry that would reap great dividends. When fathers and husbands become convinced that church and spiritual things have value, they become a pastor’s greatest asset.

I have a theory that many men are opting out of the church altogether, or living on the fringe of the fellowship. Statistics have shown that there is a decline of younger male leadership and involvement in church Men-in-church-1-250x166activity. Leon Podles writes, ‘‘A basic fear in men has resulted: church threatens their masculinity.” The Barna Research Group reports, “While 90 percent of men believe in God, only a third (or less) of them attend a church.” David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, says, ‘‘A lack of male participation is one of the surest predictors of church decline.” He goes on to say, “If you want a healthy church for the long term, attract men. This was Jesus’ strategy. It still works today.”

That may not be the situation in your congregation, but the facts underscore the truth that, when men are involved in the church and committed to living a consistent Christ-like life, the congregation is healthier and families are more stable.

Men-in-church-3-250x167I further believe that the pastor cannot simply pass the responsibility of relevant men’s ministry on to someone else. You may not be required to head the endeavor, but you must be willing to participate. Further, keep in mind that a successful attempt to reach the men of your congregation cannot be limited to activity; it needs to reproduce leadership.

The words of Paul are essential: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).

How are you going to reach men? One word: Invest! As a pastor, you must make time to connect with your men in a nonthreatening way. They need to be able to trust you, confide in you, believe in you, and learn from you without intimidation. Please trust me on this one. It will transform your ministry.

Mens-Fellowship-250x290Your investment will, in time, reap a bountiful harvest for the kingdom. Walking into the lives of other men with a masculine approach to Christ-like living will make a difference. Pastor — you hold the key! I can’t overstate how important it is that you invest in men.

Men need a challenge. Muslim men know they are locked in a battle between good and evil. We must encourage men in the body of Christ to step up and engage the evil one before we suffer one more defeat.

“Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat … and followed him” (Matthew 4:21-22).

Election 2016 - Obama Overreach 250x317Have you been following the emotional election nomination process of the past several months? Have you been keeping track of how our government officials (at all levels) have repeatedly and blatantly misused the constitutional powers of their offices? Have you been staying updated on the explosive political and military situations in the Middle East, Russia, and Korea? How about the radical policies being forced upon your local schools, your kids, or maybe even your church? Or the increase in the volume, nature, and intensity of crime in general across this nation? Or just the problems arising within your congregation or perhaps your home? Have you noticed that we live in a world more characterized by hate than at any other time in history? Things are out of control.

Personal Prayer 250x210My colleagues, it seems to me that things are so bad and threatening these days that no human effort could make even a dent towards fixing or improving what is going on around us. And that, of course, leads me to our obvious and growing need for inhuman, supernatural, divine help. And we seek and request that Godly remedy — including the power to sustain ourselves — through prayer … powerful personal prayer! It is needed more than ever.

Of course, most of you know that May 5 this year was the National Day of Prayer. I hope you and your people participated in this very important event and its activities held all around the country.

I remember a time in the early days of my pastoral ministry when I was facing a very difficult situation. I decided to share my burden with an older gentleman in the congregation whom I admired greatly for his spiritual insight. I poured out my heart to this wise man and then sat back awaiting his response. After several moments of silence, he looked over his eyeglasses at me and simply said, ‘Pray, brother, pray.”

I’m not sure that was the answer I was looking for, but it was the answer I needed. As the prayers I prayed were answered, his advice proved to be invaluable. So, whatever you might be currently facing — personally or nationally or internationally — I’d like to pass these words of wisdom on to you, my colleagues: “Pray, brother (sister), pray!”

Man in Prayer 250x167I do not know all I would like to know about prayer and how it works, but I do know from my own experience that the prayer of the intercessor is powerful. It projects faith and love in the name of Jesus Christ. As Paul taught: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

The psalmist David wrote, “Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth” (Psalm 86:11). He was probably referring to the things he learned both through experience and meditation after he had prayed. He seemed to keep asking God to “Hear my prayer.”

I learn a lot through my private prayer life, especially when I can just be quiet and talk to the Father as a son. It’s after the prayer, when I reflect on our conversation, that I most often hear from God or, at least, find direction.

When I pray, I find myself removed from the norm of my everyday activity. All formality aside, I just communicate my feelings, and often my frustrations and fears. In the end, I don’t always ask for much. I just talk and then, when it’s over (my part), I listen.

Prayer Conversation 250x250There were a lot of years during which I was guided by the “A-C-T-S” formula for praying (Affirmation, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication). But as the years have passed, my time with the Lord has become less emotional, not as animated, and much more conversational and intimate. I still wonder why we make such a show of prayer in public and why we need to pray so predictably. God listens when His children humbly and faithfully seek His face, whether our concern is over a disobedient child or an international tyrant.

Remember the Lord’s instruction regarding simple prayer in Matthew 6:5-6, before He taught the disciples how to pray? “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. … Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace” (MSG).

WriteYourOwnStory 250x333The last paragraph of the Gospel of John ends, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). This passage makes me think about you and your story. You have a story — an amazing story of God’s grace and goodness. Have you ever written it down? Have you taken the time to start at the beginning and chronicle the events and miracle moments of your life?

Oh, I’m not saying you should do it for publication — but for your own sake. Yes, you face many challenges, but if you would make the time to “write your story,” I think you would find that it would be filled with many more good times than bad.

How do you begin? Just start writing things down, beginning today. That’s what I did.

For instance, talk about your childhood and those who influenced you. You will find angels in that chapter.

How did you meet your spouse? Who you are and what you accomplish can often be traced to that moment.

How did you enter into the ministry? What brought about that call? Did it happen suddenly in a service or at camp, or was it through a series of unmistakable divine interventions in your life?

Challenges Ahead 250x324What about the challenges, both personal and professional? We have all faced both sorrow and happiness. Each one of us has known failure, but we have also experienced victory. What about the miracles of God’s grace that have caused you to shake your head and say, “He really does care about me.” Write it down — let other people read it. Use it as a testimony.

Consider this. You have probably gone through situations that caused you pain, but you made it and now you are on the other side. How you dealt with those circumstances might be helpful to you when you are faced with a similar reality. You have likely gained wisdom by the ways you have handled or mishandled successful times, as well. All of these experiences may also help someone else, perhaps another pastor.

I would imagine you’ve learned several hard lessons as a parent and spouse — and maybe you (and we all) could benefit from what you went through. Your diary or journal would contain remembrances of good times and bad, successes and failures. You would be reminded of times when you were a good mom or dad and when you made some mistakes.

WriteYourStoryNow 250x123You would come face to face again with ministry issues that changed your life. For instance: “Today, I made a decision to move on. I will assume the leadership of a new congregation. My wife and family are thrilled. I feel I should have had a better chance to turn things around here.”

Or . . . “My son needed me today, but I had pastoral duties that would not allow me the time to be the dad I wanted to be. I hope he will understand.”

Or . . . “I’m sad today. The baby we had been praying for died. I was there with the family, but I didn’t have answers. I could only say, ‘God loves you now more than ever.’ They seemed to appreciate my concern and prayers.”

Or . . . “I was at lunch today with a man in our community. As we talked, I could see he was hungry for a new life. I led him to Jesus Christ. It was awesome. What a day!”

Or . . . “Sunday came too quickly this week. I didn’t have time to prepare well — but God helped me. Some said it was the best sermon I have ever delivered. I think it’s because I had to trust Him more.”

LearnFromYourPast 250x141Our stories should be told if for no one else but our families. Think of the blessings you would experience if you had such a book from your parents, other relatives, or significant people in your life. Please consider doing this. You, my colleague, have a story — tell it!

“I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago” (Psalm 77:11).

“Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced” (Psalm 105:4-5).

Easter_crosses_250x250A lot happened to our Lord Jesus Christ on three of the four days leading to Easter. The story is primarily recorded in the first four books of the New Testament — the Gospels. And, since we have largely learned this account by reading about it in a book, it can become quite easy to push it into that distant place in our minds where we store stories — to give it a polished, almost two-dimensional perspective without the dirt, grime, pain, agony, loneliness, loss, fear, and eventual amazement that were all part of it even touching us. It is too easy to forget that it was real. It actually happened — with all of the human experiences and emotions that we ourselves know all too well.

Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci 1495 444x250
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci – 1495

However you choose to celebrate Easter, it will be a time of remembering. You will feel the emotion of that last supper when Jesus — His heart broken — observed His faithful brothers and washed their feet. You will be reminded of that awful moment when one of those trusted disciples sold Him out for a paltry sum. You will remember His sadness when He went away to pray while those He would leave behind to lead the church slept. And there was the roughness with which the soldiers treated Him as He was arrested. You will recall the spectacle of the trial, the mocking of the crowd, and the haughty trade of Jesus for a real criminal. And how can you fail to remember the journey to the cross and creation’s reaction as Jesus endured agony and death?

The Passion of the Christ 250x375When I first viewed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I was mesmerized by the film. When it was over, I walked alone in the Colorado evening and just talked to my Lord. I remember saying to Him, “I don’t ever want to hurt You — You have suffered so much.” I was reminded on that Easter evening that the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection were real — not fiction, not a church pageant, not the figment of one’s imagination. It was real! Your people need to understand that and experience His full presence.

Christ in Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann 1890 250x350
“Christ in Gethsemane” by Heinrich Hofmann – 1890

Let’s look briefly at those brutal and astonishing days. According to the Gospels, Thursday was busy — from the preparation for the Passover (Luke 22:7-23), to the last meal Jesus and His disciples shared (Matthew 26:21-24), to the garden where Judas betrayed Jesus (Matthew 26:47-50), to the arrest, Peter’s denial (Luke 22:60-62), and the appearance of our Lord before the high priest (Matthew 26:57-66).

Then, in Mark 15, Luke 23, and Matthew 27, we follow Christ from early Friday morning through the evening — from Pilate, to the cross, and then to the tomb. As He was nailed to that cross, it was the weight of a world’s sin on His shoulders that was crushing Him, the reality that He who knew no sin was made to bear the sin of all mankind. Yet, always remember that we serve a resurrected Lord, not a suffering Savior.

But before that triumphant morning, there was the agony of the cross. We must also never forget that. “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear” (John 19:34). “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).

Crucifixion-250x162The suffering of Christ was reality — real pain, real blood, real loneliness, and real betrayal. It is all a part of the Easter miracle. I urge you to preach it! “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Early on Easter Sunday, the women visited the tomb (Luke 24:1-8), the disciples gathered (John 20:2-10), and the resurrected Lord appeared (Matthew 28:5-10). He is risen! It is Easter. Resurrection Day! We have the silence of a Saturday to contemplate the meaning and reality of the crucifixion, and then, like a sunrise or the beauty of a freshly blooming garden, it is Easter!

In truth, there is a time for everything. Solomon’s words ring loudly to all of us this Easter season: “A time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2). That one phrase sums up the human predicament. We will all, in His time, move from this world into eternity.

Salvation at the Cross 250x170So, what about the reality of the afterlife? Is that not one of the major messages of Easter? What if we gain the whole world in life, but lose our souls in death? To the believer in Christ, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Paul wrote, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied. … But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19-20).

It is estimated that 40 percent of those who will sit in your sanctuary on Easter do not have a personal relationship with the resurrected Lord. You have an unprecedented opportunity to offer life to those who live in death: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). What a privilege to show these truly lost souls the way to eternal life.

CrossCelebration-500x250Your people need to remember that Easter was and is for them. It was real! And it still is! “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him’” (Matthew 28:5-7).

Season of Lent 250x250I like to observe many of the holy days of the Christian Church calendar. I guess I grew up doing so and I continue to find that they help me focus on the life of Christ and the life that the believer should be following. The Season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which was just observed by many Christians last week. It typically concludes on Easter Sunday.

Now, since many of you do not pastor in denominations that closely follow the Church calendar, you may not be very familiar with this season, and I thought it might be interesting to examine the history of Lent. I found a well-written piece on this subject by an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Kenneth W. Collins (B.A., M.Div). So, rather than “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak, I wanted to share an edited portion of his explanation from his web site (which I recognize is only one version). He also includes a section on why he thinks many Christians do not celebrate this Church holiday:

Lent is a forty-day period before Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday. We skip Sundays when we count the forty days, because Sundays commemorate the Resurrection. Lent begins on 10 February 2016 and ends on 26 March 2016, which is the day before Easter. …

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoi
“Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi

Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. All churches that have a continuous history extending before AD 1500 observe Lent. The ancient church that wrote, collected, canonized, and propagated the New Testament also observed Lent, believing it to be a commandment from the apostles. (See The Apostolic Constitutions, Book V, Section III.) …

Lent began in the apostolic era and was universal in the ancient church. For this reason, Lent is observed by the various Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican denominations, by Roman Catholics, and by Eastern Orthodox Churches.

It is much easier to explain who stopped observing it and why.

Didache (Teachings of the Apostles)
Didache (Teachings of the Apostles)

In the 16th century, many Calvinists and Anabaptists discarded all Christian holy days, on the theory that they were Roman innovations. That was their best information at the time, but today we know that they were wrong. In the late 19th century, ancient Christian documents came to light. The Didache from the first century, the Apostolic Constitutions from the third century, and the diaries of Egeria of the fourth century; all which give evidence of the Christian calendar and holy days. The Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions were written in the east, which denies it ever recognized the institution of the papacy. Egeria was a Spanish nun, but her writings also describe practices in the east. All of these documents came to light 300 years after it was too late for the groups who had already discarded Christian holy days.

In many cases, Rome was the last place to observe the holy days. For example, the idea of moving All Saints Day to November 1 did not reach Rome until 700 years after it originated in England, and the idea of celebrating Holy Week as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, was quite elaborate in Jerusalem before the early fourth century, but did not spread to Rome until the 11th century. Advent began in medieval Gaul and spread to Rome from there. Lent, on the other hand, appears to have originated in the apostolic age. The Apostolic Constitutions attribute the observance of Lent to an apostolic commandment. We can’t verify that, but we also can’t disprove it.

Draw-Near-to-God-James-4-8 - 250x250The Anabaptists gave rise to or influenced the Amish, the Mennonites, the Baptists, and the Plymouth Brethren. The Puritans, who were Calvinists, had similar views on worship, which is why they made Christmas illegal in Massachusetts at one time. (Some Mennonites, however, never rejected the Christian holy days.)

In the United States in the 19th century, the established denominations were slow to spread west of the Appalachians, which was the frontier at the time. The area was thinly populated and there were very few seminary-trained clergy. The lay people had been converted at camp meetings without any church background. They were influenced by the groups that had rejected Christian holy days, but frontier conditions were not conducive to structured liturgical worship anyway. They weren’t aware of the Christian holy days, and they didn’t have the equipment, the facilities, the education, the authorization, or the training to conduct liturgical worship. Therefore most of the religious groups that were formed in the United States in the 19th century do not have a custom of observing Lent. This environment had some influence on individual congregations in denominations that have historically observed the Christian holy days—so you will occasionally find a Methodist church that does not observe Lent.

Gradually, the holy days have returned to the churches that had lost them. The restoration quickly began with Easter. Christmas followed in the 19th century, and Advent and Holy Week became widespread among them in the 20th century. Lent is mounting a come-back in the 21st century.

─ Copyright ©1995-2016 by the Rev. Kenneth W. Collins. Reprinted with permission.

Lent-Submit to God - 250x300Let me be very clear, my colleague. I am not trying to persuade anyone that they should observe Lent. As Rev. Collins himself says on his web site: Do not allow my persuasive writing style to overcome your skepticism: weigh my words, check my facts, and accept only what passes muster. Don’t agree with me without first putting me to the test, which is your duty according to 1 John 4:1-3. I share this information only because I find it interesting.

For those of you who already participate in this annual activity, I believe that — for you — the Lenten Season should be much more than planning for a big crowd and festive weekend. It should also be a time of personal preparation for your heart, your attitude, your message, and your relationship with the risen Christ. The apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5).

As a pastor, I used the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday to call my people to a time of personal examination. Every service, including midweek, had an Easter theme that would draw people along the road to Jerusalem, to the foot of the cross, and into the celebration of the empty tomb.

Lent - RenewaL 250x250

During the Lenten Season, I would ask our congregation:

  1. Who among us has someone to forgive?
  2. Who among us has a blockage that would keep the Holy Spirit from moving freely in his or her life?
  3. Who among us has allowed his or her relationship with the risen Lord to stagnate?

What if, during this time of preparation, you guided your people to a new plateau of intimacy with Jesus? (Of course, it is nearly impossible to guide another to a place you haven’t been to or experienced yourself.) The celebration of Easter can hold great significance, especially to the new believer. I pray that your Easter activities will be underscored by the Spirit’s power.

“Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Loading 2016 250x177It’s the beginning of a new year, and with that comes new opportunities. Whether you make resolutions or set goals, let’s all ask ourselves, “What can we as the leaders of Christ’s Church offer Jesus this year?” What difference can we make in His name? We have just celebrated the birthday of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What if we were presenting gifts to Jesus?

My list for all of us would include:

  • New Resolutions 250x313A concentrated effort by the North American church to do all we can to eliminate hunger and poverty throughout the world. (We could if we would.)
  • A return to biblical literacy by believers. A resolve to live by the truth of God’s Word — not just hear it, but do it!
  • A prayer that not one more North American pastor would be accused of immorality and/or inappropriate use of the church’s money.
  • A gift of ourselves to our Lord to live in such a way that He would be pleased and glorified.

Now, to offer these gifts to Jesus, we are going to have to work together. We are going to have to show goodwill toward one another. We are going to need more unity than we demonstrated this past year. Working Together 250x273We need to remember that, regardless of denominational affiliation, all pastors face similar challenges, and none of us can succeed in isolation. Our theologies may clash at times, our form of worship can be different, our traditions have been formed on separate journeys, but the human predicament we address is much the same.

How often do you “cross over” to fellowship with one whose theology and practices might vary from yours, but from whom you can gain new and meaningful insight into ministry? I am convinced that we can learn from one another. During this season of goodwill, what better way to spread peace and love than to reach out to fellow clergy and foster new relationships that will result in a stronger church? Two Cups 250x188Why not make a point of having coffee with a clergy colleague for the sake of becoming acquainted, bringing encouragement, and absorbing edification — even though you might disagree on some points.

Bottom line: We really do have so much more in common than we have differences. Call a colleague this week. Make plans to reach out to other clergy during this next year. When there is genuine fellowship among Christian leaders, there can be unity between Christian people, especially on the things that matter most, in spite of our diversity.

“There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Hope 250x205Just think, we all have the privilege of preaching that same message of hope that was delivered to the shepherds hundreds of years ago — a message still relevant and life-changing. This year, a number of people who need that kind of hope will be in your church. Some will be lonely, depressed, or afraid. Many will have lost loved ones; others will be sick. Some will have lost jobs. Some will be separated from children who are also away from God. There will be those with sad hearts camouflaged by smiling faces. They all need hope! Tell them what Jesus would tell them: “I have come to offer you hope, with love and a sense of belonging. I’m here for everyone, including the lonely and broken.”

Colleague, please make sure this message is clearly told and not lost in the daily grind to which so many of us have already returned. Be bold. Preach and teach the truth with passion and transparency. Let your people know how blessed and thrilled you are to serve them, and feed them with the sustenance of Scripture. Emmanuel — God with us! Now, that is what I call hope!

Faith Hope Charity 250x177So, let’s add to the list that I started above of some things we can offer Jesus this year the proclamation and demonstration of goodwill, hope, belonging, and love for everyone we encounter.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11).

Merry-Christmas-Banner-250x190It’s my favorite time of the year, as many of you already know. Merry Christmas, everyone! Happy New Year! Happy Eternity!

Let me ask you something. How do you balance the many expectations of church and family during the holidays? It can be one of trickiest and most stressful times of any year. Suggestion: Keep everything in perspective.

Christmas-Fireplace-250x185I don’t remember the author, but someone wrote, “Christmas, after all, should be a time of warmth and celebration. A blazing fireplace, a brightly lighted tree, the sense of families drawing closer, the shining smiles of eager youngsters … but ironically, this joyous season often becomes a time of stress and dread for many.” Why? Because we lose perspective.

Christmas — when put into proper perspective — is a celebration of life for God’s people, a time of rejoicing and praise. We can celebrate because our Savior has come, and with Him have come freedom, hope, and peace for us all. When we lose perspective, this truth is muted.

I challenge you, my colleague, to put it all in perspective for your people this coming Advent Sunday. We are often frustrated because we take our eyes off the central figure and simply concentrate on the pageantry.

“Yet to all who received him [Jesus] … who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Now that’s perspective!

Christmas-Angels-and-Shepherds-250x325Perhaps the most complete and appropriate perspective of the season was held by the angels who visited the shepherds on that initial Christmas night. The first angel proclaimed, “I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody” (Luke 2:10, MSG). The heavenly messenger was, of course, talking about the arrival of the Christ child. It was truly a “great and joyful event.” My question to you: Are you having any fun? Is your Christmas season filled, as it should be, with joy?

Those of us in the clergy all know that, for many of the people we serve, the Advent season is not especially meaningful, much less joyful. How can we ourselves be convinced, and help our congregations see more clearly, that this beautiful event is meant for everybody, as the angel indicated?

Nativity-Scene-Mary-Joseph-Baby-Jesus-250x160Some thoughts:

  • Keep reminding them of the true meaning of the season.
  • Discourage materialism.
  • Encourage them to be involved in assisting others less fortunate.
  • Practice peace — especially in the home.
  • Use Christmas to establish new family traditions.
  • Make worship during the Advent season a priority.
  • Read the Christmas story from various translations for devotions.
  • Pick one or two people as targets for friendship evangelism.
  • Pray over every Christmas card given or received.

I know the ideas I suggest here are not profound, but they do offer handles for all of us to use as we observe this great and joyful event. Add your own ideas to these. And please keep and pass on the proper holiday perspective. “Be joyful always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

Thank You to Pastors 250x140We are entering into my favorite time of the year. It starts with Thanksgiving this month and continues into the beginning of January. So, in light of the big holiday of November, I want to express to you pastors and to you who are on ministerial staffs my heartfelt appreciation for all you do for the cause of Christ. Thank you! May God bless you as you continue to bless others.

God’s Word, as paraphrased in The Message, says:

“So proclaim the Message with intensity; keep on your watch. Challenge, warn, and urge your people. Don’t ever quit. Just keep it simple” (2 Timothy 4:2).

“Appreciate your pastoral leaders who gave you the Word of God. Take a good look at the way they live” (Hebrews 13:7).

“Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. … Contribute to the joy of their leadership. … Why would you want to make things harder for them?” (Hebrews 13:17).

“Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it” (1 Timothy 4:16).

I love you all and pray for you constantly. Thank you, again, for all you do. Our world would be a much darker place if it were not for your faithfulness and loving Christ-like example. That fact is immediately before us right now as we try to understand the evil events of the past week in Paris. Don’t ever give up! The world needs you.

A few years back, I returned to a church I had served in California to preside at a memorial service for a beloved physician I had been privileged to pastor. My former church was without a senior pastor at that time and I felt the freedom to respond to the family’s invitation.

GivingThanks7 250x145As I stood before people I had loved and cared for during a very important part of my life, I thanked God for the opportunity He had given me to walk with them through the valleys, rejoice with them on the mountaintops, and share a piece of their lives through good times and bad.

I looked into the faces of former parishioners who had come to know Christ through the foolishness of my preaching and had looked to me for guidance in times of perplexity. I had pointed them toward Christ and they had embraced Him and found the peace that passes all understanding.

I also came face-to-face with many of those who, during my absence, had lost their dearest loved ones. It was evident by the look in their eyes that, in many ways, life for them would never be the same.

Thanksgiving Bible Verse 250x130But do you know what I felt most as I addressed those who had come to offer comfort to a grieving family? I felt again that there is no promotion from the pastorate. We may go on to other things, but we will never go on to better things. Be a shepherd, my colleague; be a shepherd. And remember who called you and thank Him.

Some time ago, I attended a conference with officers from the Massachusetts Division of the Salvation Army. What a great group they are! On the front of their conference schedule was a simple verse titled “God Made Pastors.” I don’t know who the author is, but here’s how it goes:

God gave them tender hearts, to hold the hurts of others. He gave them gentle hands, to reach out with compassion and love. God gave them eyes to see the beauty and worth of a single soul. He gave them feet to move swiftly, to pursue justice, restoration, and peace.

God had His hand upon them — and breathed hope into their spirits. “He filled them with His strength, and placed a message of urgency around their lives. God challenged them to greater works than He had ever done. Then, with His own hand of blessing, He wrapped them up in His mantle of love … and called them pastors.

Thanksgiving Funny Poem 250x245Kind of nice, huh? God called you. He asked you to fill a spot, to carry a cross, to respond to an assignment that was exclusively yours. Thank you for your response. Thank you for all you do.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, “It was he who gave some to be … evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12). That verse has your name all over it. Please don’t overlook the fact that what you are doing for Christ and the church is no accident. I challenge you to live like the called-out one God created you to be. Blessings, my colleague!

“And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (2 Timothy 1:11).

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1).